Dale Sanders, 82, officially became the oldest person to hike the entire 2,190-mile trail in a year. He walked much of it alone, but for the last mile, ending at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Sanders was joined by friends, family and hikers — including a pair of dogs — he had met along the trail.
Sanders had completed other impressive feats. A couple of years ago, he paddled the length of the Mississippi River. He broke the record for underwater-breath-holding in 1959 and was IUSA spearfishing athlete of the year in 1965. But he had never done a hike lasting more than two weeks. For this one, which he started in Georgia in January, he was on the trail for a total of seven months.
He is, incidentally, two years older than the Appalachian Trail, which was officially “connected” in 1937, meaning people could hike it in its entirety from Georgia to Maine. Sanders hiked it in a “flip-flop” sequence, meaning he did a Georgia-to-Harpers Ferry leg, followed by a Maine-to-Harpers Ferry leg. A naturally gregarious person, Sanders had periods of depression while alone on the trail. He was helped by what he calls “trail angels,” people who recognized him from seeing him on the Internet, who called out his trail name — “Grey Beard” — and hiked alongside him for a stretch.
The majority of his fellow hikers were in their 20s. They didn’t have to keep track of blood pressure medication or the two different kinds of eye drops that Sanders needs for glaucoma. During the hike, he wore a tracker so people at home could locate his position. He fell “about 100 times” along the rocky, mountainous trail, but only the Kinsman Mountain fall was serious. Sanders’s personal story includes a 50-year career as a parks and recreation program administrator. He spent his boyhood on a Kentucky tobacco farm, worked as a lifeguard and was a circus acrobat and cotton-candy seller. Sanders takes 30-inch steps, so he figures he took 4,625,256 steps for the hike. Along the way, he passed tens of thousands of white blazes that mark the trail. When he passed the last one on Thursday, he stopped, took off his cap, and kissed it. A few yards later, at the conservancy headquarters, he hugged his wife and accepted a glass of sparkling cider. And with all the honesty that 82 years affords a man, he announced his next move.
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